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"Can you keep a secret?"
Her whisper is husky in the dark.
He breathes her in, the sweaty air around her naked body fragrant with musk and the aroma of sex. Drunk on her, intoxicated by her body, her voice, her smile, he grins to himself in the dark.
A fingertip trails down his chest, the nails long and red as blood. "Can you?"
"Sure," he whispers back, eyes drooping as if he's been sedated.
Her lips brush his neck, her long dark hair tickling his bare flesh, her touch dragging him out of his stupor to semiconscious desire. "Could you keep a secret even if you knew it could get you killed?"
Dalton Corbett shot up in bed fighting to catch his breath, the nightmare following him. Rationally, he knew his mind was playing tricks on him, but he could still hear the cry of the gulls, the lap of the water against the side of the gently rocking boat, the soft murmur of her whisper next to him.
Breathing hard, his skin soaked with sweat, he rubbed a hand over his face and dared to look at the other side of the bed.
His heart thudded against his ribs. For one terrifying moment, he'd thought he'd find her lying next to him, her body limp, hair wet and lank as seaweed.
Just a nightmare. But so real he swore he could smell her musky perfume and he knew that if he touched her side of the bed, he'd find it still warm. He glanced down at his chest, half expecting to see where her nails had left rivulets of dried blood.
He looked to the window and saw not rolling ocean swells, but undulating vibrant green grasslands as far as the eye could see.
Still the nightmare surrounded him with an ominous dread. He'd thought he'd exorcized Nicci from his life, his thoughts, his dreams. He'd thought he was through catching glimpses of her in passersby on street corners or in cars speeding past.
That was until three months ago when he'd seen her in the back of a taxi in downtown Houston. A week ago it had been on the national television news. Yesterday it had been in Whitehorse, Montana, just miles from the ranch.
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Dalton headed for the bathroom to splash cold water on his face. Unlike his brothers, he'd been relieved when he'd gotten the call from his father, asking him to come to Montana to discuss some family business.
Trails West Ranch, hours from the nearest town with a commercial airport, couldn't have been farther away from his former life. He'd found peace here on the north central Montana working cattle ranch his father had recently bought. The closest town was the small western town of Whitehorse, which some people would argue was still far from civilization.
Like the outlaws who'd holed up in this area over a hundred years ago, he'd been happy to hide out here. He'd thought there wasn't a chance in hell that he'd see a soul who resembled Nicci Angeles in this untamed, remote part of the state where the Missouri River carved a deep gorge through the land on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
He knew it was crazy even thinking he'd seen her in a taxi in Houston or on a national television news program. But crazier still to think he'd glimpsed her driving past in Whitehorse.
The woman he'd seen hadn't even looked like Nicci. Her hair had been blond and chin-lengthnot the wild dark mane he remembered from his nightmares.
On the television late-night news she'd been wearing a baseball cap so he hadn't even gotten a good look at her face. But there had been something about her that caught his eye. It couldn't have been Nicci being led away by two police officers, so he hadn't paid attention even where in Tennessee the crime had taken place.
What made him angry with himself was that after nine years, he'd let these random sightings of some stranger set off the nightmares again.
Standing in the bathroom over the sink, he splashed more cold water on his face and was reaching for the towel when his gaze went to the mirror. He froze, heart taking off at a gallop. For just a split second he'd seen Nicci behind him.
His pulse quickened at the memory of her smileand the knife she held in her hand. He quickly shut off the water, dried his face and hands, and returned to the bedroom to open the window.
Cool summer air blew in on a gentle breeze. The sun had just crested the horizon, golden and warm, its rays fanning out over the prairie to dazzle the dewdrops on the tall green grass.
Taking deep breaths, he soaked in the tranquil scene. After a few minutes, he could no longer feel Nicci in the room. No hint of her scent hung on the air. Nor was he ever going to wake up to find her next to him, he reminded himself. Or worse, standing behind him again with a murderous look in her eyes.
Because Nicci was dead.
He should know. He was the one who'd killed her.
Georgia Michaels moved around the In Stitches yarn shop admiring each of her students' work. The majority were close to Georgia's age, in their late twenties. More than half were pregnant. Several were grandmothers or mothers of expectant daughters and granddaughters. That's why Georgia had been offering so many knitted baby clothing classes.
Today her class was knitting a baby afghan. It was an easy pattern using large needles. Some women simply took to knitting as if it were second nature. Others looked as if they were in a boxing match, fighting the needles every inch of the way.
Georgia stopped to help her friend Rory still her arms, before moving on to help McKenna pick up a dropped stitch. Both friends were great with ranching and horses, but knitting had them bamboozled. Both were pregnant, Rory almost due while McKenna had only just found out the good news a few weeks before.
"You'll get it," Georgia encouraged her beginning knitters. "It takes a little while to feel comfortable with the needles. Knitting is a great stress reliever."
"Sure it is," McKenna said with a laugh and the others joined in.
Only Agnes Palmer sat quietly in the corner knitting as if born to it. Agnes took every knitting class offered. Georgia suspected the petite, slightly built elderly woman knew more about knitting than Georgia did, but took the classes for the companionship.
Georgia loved the chatterand the wonderful sound of nothing but the soft clack of knitting needles once class started. These women took their knitting seriously and she could appreciate that.
Knitting was a safe place for Georgia where she loved to return every chance she got. She'd been taught by the woman who'd adopted her, an elderly woman she'd called Nana. Georgia loved the feel of the needles in her hands as the yarn magically turned into some creation of her imagination.
The smooth repetition of movement lulled and comforted her, and just the sight of new yarn filled her with the excitement of all the wonderful possibilities.
Glancing at the clock, she announced, "Okay, ladies, that's it for today, but you're welcome to stay and knit if you'd like."
Usually after an hour, most of her class couldn't wait to quit, fingers cramped, eyes aching, patience spent. But they would all be back, some with several inches done, others with mistakes to be fixed.
Georgia heard Jim Benson, the local delivery man, come in the back door of the shop and call to her. This morning she'd left both the front and back doors open to get a breeze moving through the shop. It was going to be a warm one.
"See you tomorrow!" Georgia called to her departing class. As she started to turn toward the back of the shop, she saw a woman she hadn't seen before standing in the front window peering at the Apartment for Rent sign she'd put up just that morning.
"Looks like you'll be unpacking boxes all day," Jim said, drawing her attention as he came in through the back door carrying his clipboard. "You want me to stack them up in the storage room or bring them up here for you?"
She gave him a grateful smile as she signed for her shipment. "Up here if you don't mind. Over near my shelves?"
"No problem." He smiled. Jim was a nice-looking man only a few years older than Georgia herself. "Just heard on the radio. Some weather's coming in this afternoon. Talking storm warning. Thunder, lightning and maybe even some hail. Pea-sized or larger." He shook his head. "The farmers aren't going to like this one bit." He turned then and headed for his truck to unload.
When Georgia looked toward the front window again, the woman was gone. Too bad. Georgia had hoped to get the apartment rented. When she'd bought the building for her shop, she'd been excited to find there was a two-bedroom apartment upstairs for her and a one-bedroom rental apartment just across the hall.
Even though yarn sales and the knitting classes were going well, she really could use the additional income from the rental. She'd only recently finished painting, decorating and furnishing it.
Jim brought in all the boxes of knitting material, stacking them in easy reach for her to unpack near her shelves. "That work for you?" he asked.
"Thanks, Jim. I really appreciate it."
He nodded and seemed to hesitate. She could tell the past few times he came in that he wanted to ask her out, but he was having trouble getting up the nerve. She could have helped him out, but she was too busy trying to get her business going to date right now.
"Well, then, you have a nice day. Watch out for that storm later," he said, but then something caught his eye.
Georgia turned to follow his gaze. The woman she'd seen earlier was back standing in front of the Apartment for Rent sign. Slim, pretty with chin-length blond hair, she glanced up and smiled. Georgia smiled back and crossed her fingers that the woman was interested in the apartment.
As Dalton drove into Whitehorse, he swore. He hadn't wanted to go into town and wasn't the least bit happy about it. As he drove, he rehashed the conversation he'd had that morning at breakfast with his family.
"I need you to go in for feed," Russell Corbett had said the moment Dalton entered the main house dining room.
The oldest of the five Corbett brothers, Russell had moved up from Texas with the family to help their father run the ranch. The rest of the brothers had come when their father had asked and ended up staying for a while.
Not everyone had been happy about their father's move to Montana. Mostly because it had come as such a shock. None of them had expected their father to remarry. For years after losing the boys' mother, Grayson had been too busy raising his sons. By the time the boys had reached their twenties, they just figured he would never marry again.
Then Kate had shown up one day at the ranch in Texas with a box of photographs. Kate had grown up with their mother Rebecca on a ranch in Montana, the Trails West Ranch, and thought Grayson might want the photographs. Kate had lost touch with Rebecca after their lives took different paths.
Grayson had fallen for Kate like a boulder over a bluff. Within months they'd married and he'd sold the ranches in Texas to move to Montana to buy a belated wedding present for KateTrails West Ranch, the ranch where she'd grown up. Her father had lost the ranch when she was twenty-two, shortly before his death.
At first, Dalton and his brothers had thought the marriage and move too impulsive. But seeing how happy their father was had changed their minds.
"Give him a chance to eat his breakfast," his father had said, smiling down the table at Dalton this morning. Grayson loved having his sons in Montana and so far he'd been able to keep them here.
"Everyone else is tied up today," Russell said, pushing his plate away. "Did you have something else you had to do this morning?"
Dalton had been looking forward to a hard day's work on the ranch, even if it meant mucking out the horse stalls or stacking hay. After the nightmare, the last thing he wanted to do was go into Whitehorse. He'd be looking over his shoulder the entire time.
"I was just planning to work around here," he'd said as he'd dropped into an empty chair and helped himself to Juanita's huevos rancheros, one of her specialties. The smartest thing his father had done was talk their Texas cook into coming to Montana with them.
"Why doesn't Shane pick up the feed and I'll do his chores for him?" Dalton had suggested, expecting his older brother to jump at it.
"You're on," Shane had said with a grin. "I'd much rather pick up feed from town than drive to Billings with Maddie to attend a wedding extravaganza at the Metra and spend the day planning our nuptials."
"You'd better not let Maddie hear you talking like that," Kate joked.
His brothers Jud and Lantry had chuckled but were too busy putting away breakfast to comment.
"I guess I'll be going into town." Dalton had finished his breakfast with a lot less enthusiasm as everyone headed in different directions for the day.
The summer day was bright and blue, not a cloud in the sky, making it hard to believe a storm was headed their way. The air smelled of dust and grasses. With his side window down and his arm resting on the ledge, he drove the two-lane dirt road north. The sky seemed vast, as endless as the rolling prairie. It felt good to be on solid ground after years of spending days at a time afloat on the Gulf of Mexico.
Whitehorse was miles from anything else. Its original town had started farther south, nearer the Missouri River Breaks. But when the railroad came through, the town took its name and moved north, leaving behind little more than a few houses in what was now called Old Town Whitehorse.
Dalton dropped the truck off at the store to have the feed loaded and, too antsy to wait around, walked down the tracks the few blocks to the center of town. It was one of those Montana towns that had as many bars as it did churches.
There was a weekly newspaper, the Milk River Examiner, a grocery store, a clothing and a hardware store, an old-timey theater that showed one movie a week and a lumberyard.
Parked along the main street that faced the railroad tracks were always more pickups than cars. This was ranching country and the talk in the cafés and the bars always came back to the price of wheat and beef, the promise of rain, the threat of hail.